Updated 01:59 PM EDT, Thu, Oct 21, 2021

More Latinos Convert from Catholics to Protestants; the Latin Wave in the Anglican Church

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You can't get much more "Anglo" than the Anglican Communion, known in the United States as the "Episcopal Church." But in border areas like Texas, this church is starting to show the effects of an influx of Hispanics into its congregations. Long associated with attending Roman Catholic churches, the Hispanic Episcopalians reflect a growing trend of Latinos in Protestant churches across the U.S.

Episcopalians are not known to be quite as adoring of the Virgin Mary as the Roman Catholics; but in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in her trademarked green cloak, is prominently displayed in the front of St. Matthew's Cathedral. It was installed during a special bilingual ceremony in 2003.

The Virgin is a symbol that the Latino community has carried with it, a part of their tradition that the former Catholics have brought with them into this faith that is closely related to the one they've left behind.

Latinos have actually been filling the pews in the Episcopal churches of North Texas for years, though fast figures on the trend can be hard to come by.

"Data on our Hispanic congregations is difficult to pinpoint simply because most of them are part of an Anglo congregation and the numbers are usually combined," said Rev. Paul Lambert, Bishop Suffragan for the Diocese of Dallas to The Latino Post. "We are seeing a trend however, for more independence by the Hispanic congregations and we probably should encourage them to keep their membership numbers separate from Anglos. Theologically this is not productive since we all are one in Christ and there is no, as Paul says, 'slave, nor free,' and in this case no Spanish or Caucasian."

According to Lambert, there are six Spanish-speaking congregations in the Diocese of Dallas that constitute an average Sunday attendance of 1,170. In other words, it is roughly 10 percent of the Sunday attendance for the entire diocese. The Diocese of Dallas spends $460,000 per year on its Hispanic Ministries, 14 percent of the total annual budget.

"The Diocese of Dallas experienced the first migration of Hispanics in the 1950s," Lambert said. "The ministry to the Hispanics became more intentional in the late 1970s when we called a Canon for Hispanic Ministry who was assigned to the 'Catedral de San Mateo.' This ministry has since expanded rapidly.

"The first Hispanic congregation was/is Holy Family Episcopal Church, McKinney, Texas established in 1952. It also became the sight of Holy Family School. The school is still operating to this day."

While many churches have seen the arrival of Latino members over decades, Christ Episcopal Church, chartered in 1890 in the historic Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff, is set to welcome its first Latino rector next Saturday.

Rev. Fabian Villalobos is originally from Bogota, Colombia, and is originally a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Like many of his congregants (the Spanish-speaking congregation is now the largest in the parish), he too migrated to the Episcopal Church after coming to the United States.

"It was a very difficult process," Villalobos said of leaving the Catholic faith and joining the Episcopal ranks. He comes from a tradition of believing that there is no salvation outside the Catholic faith.

"I was happy with my ministry, but I was not happy with the disciplinary side and the theology," he says. "I was not happy with the fact that the Canon law was more important than the gospel. I could not be the priest that they wanted me to be."

Villalobos traveled from his native Colombia to Italy trying to find a place to fit into the religious ministry he had grown up loving. Political and personal differences within the ranks of the clergy led him to look elsewhere. It was during this time in Italy when he started meeting with people from the Anglican Communion.

"The Eucharist is very important to me," Villalobos said. "The Episcopal Church is the closest communion of faith to my traditions outside the Catholic Church. The Russian churches and the Ukrainian churches have the Eucharist, but they are not my culture."

Coming to the United States was a profound experience for Villalobos, who said seeing all the cars parked outside various types of churches had a big impact on him. He also met his now-wife, Dee Ann. Catholic priests are prohibited from marrying. The Episcopal Church holds no such restrictions over its clergy. He began asking himself if this growing relationship was "God working his way in my life."

The second time he came to the United States, he began the process of becoming an Episcopal priest.

"It was a little different for me because I was already a Catholic priest," he explained. "They don't ordain you, they receive you. They recognize the training you had."

Villalobos, who began a journey to become a Catholic priest in Colombia in 1993, became an Episcopal priest in Texas in 2012. On Nov. 23, he will officially take over as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Oak Cliff, the first Latino to hold that position.

Coming to the United States, with its many active Christian denominations, is something he sees as a changing point for many of his Latino congregants who also began their religious lives in the Roman Catholic faith.

"When they come here they have the opportunity to change," Villalobos said. "They open their eyes and see that you can be a Christian and you don't have to be a Catholic."

He also sees location as a prime draw for Hispanics to his church. He cites the (generally) smaller congregations in the Episcopal Church as another advantage.

"We know them by name," Villalobos said. "In the Catholic church they have hundreds."

He admits a change in mentality is sometimes necessary for parishioners who come from the very strict doctrines preached by the Catholic Church back home in Latin America.

"We are a very open church," Villalobos said. "Sometimes people will say, 'You have a gay bishop?' And we have to say 'yes we do.' We openly accept gay people. Even for women in the ministry, sometimes you look and see women in the clergy and they are used to the priest always being a man. Initially it causes questions, but eventually you are accepting of it."

Christ Episcopal Church held its first Spanish-language service in 1996. Eventually, a small statue of the green-clad Virgin of Guadalupe took her place in a small prayer corner to the right of the main sanctuary. Next week, the first Latino rector of the church will take his place as head of the church in a special ceremony presided over by the Bishop of the Diocese of Dallas.

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